06/24/2007 11:00PM

Plenty of speed for Gold Cup

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The presence of two confirmed front-runners in Saturday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup - A. P. Xcellent and Mr. Splash - may help Lava Man equal a unique milestone, or give the red-hot Molengao his first Grade 1 win.

Over the weekend, trainers John Shirreffs and Paddy Gallagher confirmed they will start A. P. Xcellent and Mr. Splash. Their presence should lead to a speed duel that may provide a stalker such as Lava Man and a closer such as Molengao with ideal trips.

Lava Man has been assigned top weight of 124 pounds in a field of nine, and is trying for his third consecutive win in the Gold Cup, which is run at 1 1/4 miles. Native Diver is the only horse to win the race three times, from 1965 to 1967.

Molengao, an easy winner of the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap here May 5, is considered the biggest threat to Lava Man. Second to Lava Man in the Santa Anita Handicap in March, Molengao will carry 120 pounds.

The other probable starters are A. P. Arrow and My Creed, at 116 pounds; Saint Stephen and Wilko, 115; and Big Booster, 113. Like the pacesetters, they will be longshots.

The presence of Mr. Splash (112) has left Shirreffs concerned about A. P. Xcellent. Owned by Stan Fulton, A. P. Xcellent (115) will need to run a career-best race to win his first stakes in the Gold Cup.

"When he was the lone speed, we thought we had a decent chance," he said of A. P. Xcellent. "A lot depends on how Lava Man runs."

Shirreffs is banking on A. P. Xcellent's tenacity to overcome a speed duel. A. P. Xcellent was beaten by 1 1/2 lengths when third to Buzzards Bay in the Californian Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on June 2, but did not quit after being headed.

"He fights off the first horse that comes to him," Shirreffs said. "The mile and a quarter is okay. He's been a mile and a half. The pace is the big deal."

A. P. Xcellent worked six furlongs in 1:17.40 on Sunday, a time that did not concern Shirreffs.

"He's never been much of a work horse in the mornings," he said.

Mr. Splash has very modest credentials. A former maiden claimer, he finished last in an optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles on May 26, leading to the final turn before fading. Owned by Janavar Thoroughbreds, Mr. Splash will make his first start in a Grade 1 in the Gold Cup.

"It's a big gamble," Gallagher said. "His last race wasn't that good, but he's training good since that race. We'll give it a shot."